The sky is lightening – it's almost sunrise at Angkor Wat. Squint and you can just about make out a change in the colour of it, a shift from inky-black to blue-black. As the sun rises further it changes more, until it pales enough behind the stonework that you can begin to make out a hulk on the horizon.
You breathe in and get ready to experience one of travel’s true once-in-a-lifetime moments. And then a selfie stick springs up in your eyeline, a bright screen illuminating the darkness. You are jostled from behind and suddenly you can’t see a thing. The stone pinkens in the sunrise ahead but you’re marooned the wrong side of the camera-swayers. You miss the window, those crucial moments, in which Angkor Wat is at its most beautiful.
Yes, there is a wrong way to do Angkor Wat. It’s Cambodia’s most visited tourist attraction with more than two million visitors every year. That said, it is possible to see Angkor Wat without the crowds. Find out how below, but remember: it’s a secret.
Angkor is not just one temple, but a complex of hundreds spread over a vast area, close to the city of Siem Reap. The ruins were once a city home to more people than London. To most visitors though it is three temples at most: Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm.
First up is Angkor Wat, the iconic temple whose name is often interchangeable with the name of the whole complex. You might have seen it many times on film and in pictures, but nothing can prepare you for the beauty of its five perfectly aligned towers, each one like an ear of corn.
Nothing can prepare you for the crowds at the West Gate come sunrise either – something best avoided. Ask your guide to take you to the East Gate instead. Here's you’ll walk through the temple from the opposite side, scuffing along empty stone corridors in the dark. Watch the sunrise from here, lighting up the stones as it climbs, before heading out of the West Gate for coffee and breakfast at one of the stands nearby.
By the time you’re finished, the worst of the sunrise crowds will have gone but it will still be early enough to explore in relative peace.
The Bayon, with its pyramid covered in hundreds of half-smiling faces, is busy with visitors almost all day long. It seems to magnetically pull the very worst of the shuffling crowds to its giant stone terraces.
Fortunately, most visitors appreciate a good long lunch. Between about twelve and two in the afternoon you may be able to get the fascinating faces to yourself for a minute or two. Don’t forget your sun cream and a hat – there’s very little shade.
Ta Prohm, which featured in Tomb Raider, is a contrast – its shady jungle-cloaked ruins are most popular during the hottest part of the day. For Ta Prohm, dusk the perfect time to visit, as everyone else heads en masse to Phnom Bakheng hill to see the sunset. Wait behind and you should have almost no competition for the perfect photograph at this most atmospheric temple.
One of the best ways to enjoy Angkor Wat without the crowds is to explore beyond the most popular sites. The site spans around 400 square kilometres, so you'll have plenty of options. The 'big three' will take a full day to see properly – so plan on getting a three-day ticket. This will give you time to step away from the hordes and see some of the temples you won’t have heard of.
Ta Keo is within selfie stick swinging distance of Ta Phrom but it wasn’t in Tomb Raider and so it is not on most visitors’ itineraries. Even better, the temple steps are seriously steep, making the climb hard enough to put off most people. The result? A view over the temple-dotted landscape from 21 metres up, and away from everyone else.
If the jungle-claimed Ta Phrom captured your imagination, don’t miss Preah Khan. This a massive complex was once home to upwards of 10,000 people and today a tumbledown heap of lichen-covered stones and imposing tree roots as thick as houses. Few people wander its ruins, enclosed by a moat so placid it appears like a mirror and surrounded by jungle so quiet you feel like you’ve stumbled on a true secret.
However much research you do in advance, Angkor is just too big to take in on your own.
To get away from the coach parties you need a private tuk-tuk that can navigate the temples and a knowledgeable guide. The best guides are willing to be flexible and will suggest quiet areas you won’t find in most guidebooks. Angkor isn’t a destination where you can wing it, so book with a specialist operator who has local expertise and is up to date on the best places to get away from the ever-expanding crowds. Rough Guides partners with local experts in Cambodia to arrange personalised itineraries – get in touch to find out more.
As with many temples and holy sites across Southeast Asia, there's a fairly strict dress code at Angkor Wat. Trousers or long skirts are best on the bottom half – clothing must cover the knees. On the top, a shirt or T-shirt is fine as long as it fully covers your shoulders. Strappy vests or tank tops are not permitted. Unlike some sites where you can buy a T-shirt at the entrance, if you're not properly dressed at Angkor Wat you'll be turned away.
Bear in mind also that the wear is usually hot and humid, so natural fibres and loose clothing will be more comfortable. Pack a hat to protect yourself from the sun, and wear hiking sandals or trainers so you can climb the (many) steps!
Top image: Row of sculptures Gate Guardians on the bridge, South Gate of Angkor Thom complex, Cambodia © Paula Cobleigh/Shutterstock